David Stone has been stagestruck since he choked up at the end of Man of La Mancha at age four. At 31, he’s a veteran Broadway producer — most recently, of the controversial revival of The Diary of Anne Frank.

By Leslie Whitaker

ONE NAZI SOLDIER and two Dutch collaborators hurry three frightened men, two women, and three teenagers down a flight of stairs that descends through the floor at the front of the stage, all but one making their final exit. Sirens blare, and smoke — symbolizing the gas chambers — clouds the air. It is the closing scene of the new Broadway adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, the world-famous journal written by a precocious 12-year-old Jewish girl while in hiding from the Nazis with her family and friends during World War II. 
   For the adults in the audience, the story and its end — how Anne, her parents and sister; another family, the Van Daans; and a Jewish dentist, Mr. Dussel, concealed themselves in an office building annex in Amsterdam for two years, only to be discovered and led away to the death camps just a few months before Germany was defeated — is heartbreaking, but expected. For some of the children in the theater, and there are many school groups and families in attendance at each performance, the ending is more of a puzzle. 
   “Mommy, why are they taking them away? Mommy, where are they taking them?” Those questions, blurted out by a young boy at a preview matinee in Boston a few weeks before the revival opened on Broadway last November, may have jarred some adult theatergoers lost in private meditations over evil, but for David Stone, C’88, the show’s producer, the little boy’s questions were as moving as any line uttered on stage. 
   “That’s how I know the performance is profound,” he says. “This is going to affect this kid’s life. The power lies in being in their world and seeing it happen in front of you.” 
   Stone is no stranger to the hold that the stage can have on children. At seven years old, he had the lead role in his first show, the musical The King and I, at the French Woods Camp in the Catskills, where his parents’ best friends were head counselors. He acted in three shows every summer for 10 years and was the only camper to direct. “It was great training,” he says. 
   Stone’s mother insists that her eldest son was first drawn to drama at age four, when she took him to see Man of La Mancha on Broadway. “We had the cast album at home,” Stone recalls. “I didn’t know everything that was going on, but at the end I couldn’t swallow because I had a lump in my throat. My mother loves to tell that story.” 
   The Stone family — which also included David’s younger brother, Steve, now a talent agent — lived in Marlboro, New Jersey, within commuting distance from Manhattan. Stone’s parents were Broadway enthusiasts who worked in the fashion district. The couple divorced when Stone was 13, and his father moved to Manhattan, where Stone visited him frequently. 
   Stone appeared in several high-school productions, including Guys and Dolls, and was valedictorian of his class. At Penn, anxious to broaden his interests beyond drama, he majored in communications as well as studying English and theater arts. He still values the “brutally honest” critiques of writing teacher Nora Magid and Emeritus Professor of Communication Dr. George Gerbner’s dissection of the way television news is put together. “What they choose to include and choose not to include reflects the agenda of the network,” says Stone. “That taught me to analyze everything I see rather than accept it without thinking.” 
   One of Stone’s favorite classes was a history course on the 1960s taught by Dr. Sheldon Hackney, Hon’93, then president of the University. Convened in the president’s living room, the class engaged in weekly conversations about the politics of that era, including the struggle for civil rights and the student movement. Hackney supplemented a long reading list that included Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, with viewings of documentaries and movies, and visits from guest speakers such as Rosa Parks. Hackney’s role, Stone recalls, was “to inspire conversation and debate. He wanted us to think.” 
   Outside of class, Stone continued to expand his repertoire of dramatic roles, appearing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The House of Blue Leaves as a member of the student theater troupe Quadramics. He also directed Baby, a musical, for the Arts House Theatre and produced Shaw’s Arms and the Man for the Penn Players, the oldest theater group on campus. 
   A summer internship between his junior and senior years at Jujamcyn Theaters, the smallest of the three companies that among them own all of Broadway’s stages, provided Stone with an insider’s view of the business of professional theater. “The president [of the company] at the time was fired, and a new one came in who turned this small company into a real force,” recalls Stone. “I got to see the whole shake-up.” 
   One of his duties as intern was to scout for promising plays by reading scripts and attending readings and shows throughout the Northeast. “I didn’t like much,” Stone says, but he came across some winners, which he recommended highly, including M Butterfly, which opened in a Jujamcyn theater and won a Tony, and Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which the company coproduced Off-Broadway. 
   Back at Penn for his senior year, Stone continued to work for Jujamcyn by scouting plays in the Philadelphia area. As graduation neared, he decided to leave acting behind in favor of producing. “After 35 productions, the joy went out of performing for me, and I hated the process of rehearsals,” he says. He secured eight interviews with producers, which resulted in four job offers. The downside: the highest salary was $15,000.

STONE SIGNED ON with Barry and Fran Weissler, independent producers based in New York City. For six months he worked mostly with Fran, booking national tours of productions like David Copperfield’s magic show, Cabaret, and South Pacific. Then he resigned to enroll at Columbia University Law School, but lasted only half a day before quitting to return to the theater. 
   For the next two years, Stone worked more closely with Barry, the partner who specialized in the management side of the business, legal issues, and accounting. Among the shows Stone cut his teeth on were Othello with James Earl Jones, Zorba with Anthony Quinn, Cabaret with Joel Grey, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Kathleen Turner, and My Fair Lady with Richard Chamberlain. 
   “Four years in that office were like 10 years anywhere else,” Stone says. “The office grew from five people to 25 during that time, and I had what was like an old-fashioned Broadway apprenticeship. I worked 12-hour days and then went out to dinner with the Weisslers and saw shows. We were so close I even went to their grandchildren’s bar mitzvahs.” 
   In 1992, at the tender age of 25, Stone decided he was ready to go out on his own, a heady decision for someone so young. But the Weisslers were “supportive and generous” of his new venture, sharing office space with him, and over the years they have worked on several productions together. 
   Stone spent the first year pursuing numerous potential projects and running out of money. “I was the youngest person doing this kind of thing,” he says. “I’d say ‘I’m a producer,’ and people would respond skeptically, ‘Sure you are.’ I had to convince people that I knew what I was doing even when I didn’t fully believe it myself.” 
   It was during a vacation to visit his father and stepmother in Florida that Stone stumbled upon his first hit. He saw Sherry Glazer appearing at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse in Family Secrets, a funny and moving one-woman show in which she played all five members of a Jewish family. Stone loved the performance and invited Amy Nederlander-Case, a member of the Nederlander family, the most prominent theater-owners on Broadway, to join him as a partner in producing the project. Nederlander-Case and Stone had been introduced to each other by a mutual friend while Nederlander-Case was an MBA candidate at Columbia University’s business school. She flew down to see the play and became equally enthusiastic. Each partner raised $300,000 to mount the production, Stone approaching friends from Penn, friends of his family, and business associates. As producers, they also were in charge of securing a theater and overseeing marketing, advertising, and press relations. 
Family Secrets opened off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre in Fall 1993 and dazzled the critics. It ran until New Year’s Day 1995, earning back all the money plus $600,000 more and making history as the longest-running one-person Off-Broadway show. “Now that I’m more experienced, I could tell you all the reasons that a show like that wouldn’t work — for instance, it was a one-person show, the actress was unknown, and taking such a big risk on your first show could backfire,” Stone confides. “But I didn’t know any of them then, and it all worked out very well.” 
   His next time out — Stone’s first Broadway venture — didn’t go nearly so smoothly. What’s Wrong With This Picture? was about a Jewish family reovering from the death of its matriarch — who returns from the afterlife to help them move on. Directed by a hot new director, Joe Mantello, it opened in December 1994 with Tony Award-winner Faith Price, but never gained a following. 
   “On paper it all looked good. I believed in and still love the play,” says Stone. “And I actually learned more from a flop than a hit.” The director and cast tinkered with the production during previews, but, largely because of the high union wages paid to Broadway performers, any additional time working on the play was prohibitively expensive. Stone decided to pull the plug after only five weeks, including previews. 
   With each show he has worked on, picks and pans, Stone has developed relationships that he continues to draw on. Cabaret star Joel Grey “remained a friend,” says Stone. Director Joe Mantello admires Stone for “not making me feel bad and not running and pointing fingers in blame” during their joint Broadway debacle, and they have worked together on several more projects. “David is smart, very sensitive, and incredibly decent,” adds Mantello, who has acted in the play Angels in America and directed Love, Valor, Compassion. “We also have similar sensibilities. Ninety-nine percent of the time we see eye to eye on casting. And if we disagreed, we’d try to find someone else.”
   Stone and Nederlander-Case work as partners on most projects now, including Anne Frank. Says Nederlander-Case: “David has a tremendous amount of passion for this business that is reflected in his energy level and dedication to his work. He’s remarkably thorough, so the decisions he makes are based on taking lots of things into consideration.”
   The partners were impressed with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Full Gallop, a one-woman show about fashion legend Diana Vreeland, starring and written by Mary Louise Wilson. The play begins four months after Vreeland was fired from Vogue magazine, a turning point in her life. The producers waited a year for the Westside Theatre, where they’d had such success with Family Secrets, to become available and reopened the show there — to rave notices. “Vreeland and her life become an absorbing — nay, enthralling — theatrical episode,” wrote The New York Post.The New York Daily News called it “divine, divine, divine!” Elizabeth Ashley appeared in a three-month national tour and Mary Louise Wilson will return to the part in London in September.

IT WAS JOE Mantello who suggested that Stone produce a stage version of two holiday satires by the gay humorist and National Public Radio commentator David Sedaris, “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” and “The Santaland Diaries.” The latter, an essay that Sedaris originally read on NPR, is a wickedly funny account of his experience working as an elf in Macy’s seasonal Santaland display, including his attraction to some of the other elves. Stone, who also is gay, loved the idea, but Sedaris was initially uninterested. Mantello recalls, “David wouldn’t give up, and eventually he wore him down.” Stone says he persisted because, “I wanted to do something really cool and to work with the hippest people. No one made any money. It was just for fun.” 
   Stone and partner Nederlander-Case spent 18 months competing for the rights to revise and produce a new play based on Anne Frank’s diary. They spent hours brainstorming about how to sensitively handle the play, which had such emotional ramifications for so many people and yet needed to be updated based on recently restored material critical of Anne’s mother and expressive of her sexual feelings that Anne’s father had cut from earlier editions. They also wanted to think through the marketing of the play to the broadest possible audience. The esteemed director James Lapine, who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim as both librettist and director of Into the Woodsand Sunday in the Park with George, signed on, and playwright Wendy Kesselman, author of My Sister In This House, was hired to adapt the script. 
   Impressed by the young actress Natalie Portman (“She blew me away,” Stone says of her performance in the film Beautiful Girls), Stone suggested to Lapine that he consider the Israeli-born, Long Island-bred 16-year-old film star for the part of Anne. “He brought Natalie into the mix. She did a reading, and I thought she was terrific,” says Lapine. Portman was so moved by the diary, read at the recommendation of her father during breaks in filming The Professional, that she turned down a huge Hollywood opportunity, the role of Grace in Robert Redford’s film ofThe Horse Whisperer, to appear as Anne. The great granddaughter of two Holocaust victims, Portman told The Boston Globe, “I want the audience to understand the story as a real story. This isn’t something some playwright made up. This really happened, and it’s important never to let it happen again.” 
   But before the curtain rose on Stone’s production, the adaptation of the diary was engulfed in controversy. Writer Cynthia Ozick filled 10 pages in The New Yorker with an examination of the previous adaptations of the diary — a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and an Oscar-nominated movie in which uplifting lines had been emphasized and references to Jewishness had been downplayed. Anne Frank’s diary had been, Ozick contended, “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied. Among the falsifiers have been dramatists and directors, translators and litigators, Anne Frank’s own father, and even — or especially — the public, both readers and theatregoers, all over the world. A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth or anti-truth.” 
   Ozick argued that because it does not chronicle the terrible end of Anne’s life and that of her companions, “its incompleteness has left it open to false characterizations” of being “a song to life” or “a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit,” which she considered a mockery. Her conclusion to the article was stunning and she knew it. Ozick wrote: “It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it) but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost — saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” 
   Stone never reacted publicly to the piece, but it seared him, keeping him up for many sleepless nights. “I thought it was vicious because she wrote it without ever having seen [our version of] the play,” he says. “In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened.” 
   The publicity focused attention on the play just before the reviews came out, and they, for the most part, were positive. Richard Zoglin wrote in Time, for instance, that the new adaptation “sometimes reaches poetry.” 
   Stone is hopeful that Diary, which cost $1.6 million to mount plus weekly expenses, will run until the end of this year, generating $15 million and an attendance of 350,000, terrific numbers for a Broadway production. 
   Currently Stone is “juggling a bunch of potential projects and seeing what happens.” Among them are two revivals, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Witness for the Prosecution. Samuel L. Jackson has tentatively agreed to take on the role of Randle P. McMurphy, famously portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film version. Several well-known female film stars are considering the role of McMurphy’s nemesis, the cruel Nurse Ratched. Joe Mantello will direct. 
   Still among the youngest producers working on Broadway, Stone is praised for being “passionate about making great theater,” says Joel Grey. “He has a sense of history and wants to be part of it.” 
   The standout moment in Stone’s career to date, he says, came when he had the opportunity to be included in a meeting with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, the collaborators who wrote West Side Story. “They were trashing it,” Stone remembers, “saying they were only young kids when they wrote it, and how much better it would be if they could write it now. I loved that play and said, ‘You guys are kidding, right?’ But at that moment, listening to them criticize their own production, I felt like I’d made it.”

THAT HASN’T led him to slow down, though. He’s never learned to cook; instead, he grabs a sandwich before running off to the theater in the evening. One April day he spent the afternoon sitting in on auditions for a replacement for Natalie Portman, who will leave Anne Frank this month to begin filming George Lucas’s prequel to Star Wars. That evening he attended a three-hour production of Othello
   At least once a year Stone brings that enthusiasm back to Penn, where he teaches a half-day course in Arts Management to Wharton students or speaks at the Performing Arts Symposium on careers in the theater. He is not surprised to note that students in the College are generally interested in the artistic side of the business, while the Wharton students focus on the financial aspects, but Stone himself prefers to balance the two. “Sometimes you are involved in a production that you are proud of artistically but it is not successful commercially. Other times you are involved in something that makes money but is crappy. When it all works, when you’re involved in something brilliant that also turns out well financially, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.” 

Leslie Whitaker, a former reporter for Time and contributor to numerous national magazines, last wrote for the Gazette on inner-city schoolteacher Michael Feinberg, C’91, in December 1996.

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